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Features

In a digital world where information is at your fingertips, be prepared to hold on tight before it slips right through them. Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a “cognitive overload” that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen.twitter-1084764_640

Worse yet, that overload can spill over and diminish performance in the real world.

“Most people don’t post original ideas any more. You just share what you read with your friends,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. “But they don’t realize that sharing has a downside. It may interfere with other things we do.”

Wang and colleagues in China conducted experiments showing that “retweeting” interfered with learning and memory, both online and off. The experiments are described in Issue 59 (2016) of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The experiments were conducted at Beijing University, with a group of Chinese college students as subjects. At computers in a laboratory setting, two groups were presented with a series of messages from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. After reading each message, members of one group had options either to repost or go on to the next message. The other group was given only the “next” option.

After finishing a series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages. Those in the repost group offered almost twice as many wrong answers and often demonstrated poor comprehension. What they did remember they often remembered poorly, Wang reported. “For things that they reposted, they remembered especially worse,” she added.

The researchers theorized that reposters were suffering from “cognitive overload.” When there is a choice to share or not share, the decision itself consumes cognitive resources, Wang explained.

This led to a second experiment: After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their comprehension of a New Scientist article. Again, participants in the no-feedback group outperformed the reposters. Subjects also completed a Workload Profile Index, in which they were asked to rate the cognitive demands of the message-viewing task. The results confirmed a higher cognitive drain for the repost group.

“[The sharing] leads to cognitive overload, and that interferes with the subsequent task,” Wang said. “In real life when students are surfing online and exchanging information and right after that they go to take a test, they may perform worse,” she suggested.

Noting that other research has shown people often pay more attention to elements of a web design such as “repost” or “like” than to the content, the researchers suggest that web interfaces should be designed to promote rather than interfere with cognitive processing. “Online design should be simple and task-relevant,” Wang concluded.

The research was supported by the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation.

Reprinted from Research Cornell News
by Alexandra Chang

An 18-month-old boy sits on his father’s lap in a small room furnished with a child-sized chair and a short table. The boy faces a monitor. On it, a video starts to play. A woman, Psychology graduate student Kate Brunick, assembles a simple toy—she holds two bright green cups, places a plastic object inside one, brings the cups together, and closes them to form a capsule. She shakes it; it’s a makeshift rattle.

As the boy watches the video, Michael H. Goldstein, Psychology, and his graduate students observe from the B.A.B.Y. (Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years) lab’s observation room, a space hidden behind one-way glass and filled with monitors and video controls. Once the recording is done, Psychology graduate student Melissa Elston heads into the room where the boy and father sit. She’s carrying the toy from the video clip and places it on top of the table in front of the boy.

The boy doesn’t budge. After a couple minutes of encouragement from Elston, it’s clear he’s not assembling a rattle on this visit. It’s not a failure. This is exactly what Goldstein expects.

The study is just one of the many taking place at Cornell’s infant labs, where researchers are discovering more about the nuances of infant development. It’s a crucial area of academic research and exploration, given the impact early development has on later stages of life.

How Babies Learn in Social Settings

This particular study is on a phenomenon called the "video deficit effect," in which babies from 12 to 30 months are much worse at learning from video presentations than from real-life experiences. The group studies the babies in three scenarios: one in which babies see a live presentation of putting the toy together, another with an automatic pre-recorded video, and a third in which the baby has to press a button in order to play the pre-recorded video. Their theory is that the first group will learn, the second won’t, and the third will because the experience is contingent on and immediately follows their own action.

The study falls under the lab’s research on how babies learn in social context. Most of the work Goldstein and his codirector, Jennifer Schwade, do is on how social interactions affect the acquisition of speech and language in both babies and songbirds (in their case, song). Contingency, they’ve found, is crucial to learning.

Goldstein argues that the social behavior of adults contains patterns that can guide young learners. “If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” he says.

Alongside Goldstein, Steven S. Robertson and Marianella Casasola, Human Development, run baby labs at Cornell.

How Babies Collect Information from Their Environment through Visual Foraging

Steve S. Roberston, Professor in Human Development

If, when you think of an infant lab, you imagine a baby outfitted with sensors, you’re on the right track when it comes to Robertson’s research. He examines mind–body relations in very young babies, typically three-month-olds. Specifically, he looks at the relationships between vision, motor activity, and attention during visual foraging, a major way in which infants gather information from their surroundings.

“If you want to understand how infants learn, you’ve got to understand not only what’s in the baby’s head but what social environment the baby’s head is in,” Goldstein says.

To study the dynamics of visual foraging, Robertson depends on EEG measurements and a few flashing rubber ducks. When a baby arrives at the lab, she is placed in a high chair in front of three yellow rubber ducks. The ducks are outfitted with LED lights and attached to motor-controlled rods that can move them right and left. Atop the baby’s head is an EEG cap. It measures the oscillations in the activity of visual neurons. Each duck’s light flashes at a different frequency and the baby’s oscillations in neural activity will match the frequency of the duck receiving her attention.

Through these measurements, Robertson knows when a baby is paying attention to a certain duck. A video camera records the baby, so they can see how her eyes move in relation to that attention. What Robertson found and reported in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 is that attention is not always directly correlated to gaze. In fact, babies redirect their attention to a new duck ahead of actually looking at it. What’s more surprising is that a second or two before shifting to the new duck, babies actually paid more attention to the duck they didn’t choose to look at.

Robertson sees this behavior as consistent with the inhibition of return (IOR) observed in adults. In IOR, attention is suppressed toward previously inspected areas or objects in favor of new locations or objects. It would make sense for a baby to look at, and focus attention toward, a duck that it had not been paying attention to earlier.

Robertson is currently conducting further studies to test whether the behavior in infants truly is the development of IOR. “The adaptive value of this in visual exploration is that it keeps you from going to the same spot,” Robertson says. “You get to literally explore new locations in your environment and pick up new information.” And he adds that it’s especially important to study in infants because “the nature of visual input during this period has important consequences for the structural and functional development of the brain,” which happens quickly in early infancy.

Understanding Spatial Language Skills

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Marianella Casasola, Proessor in Human Development

Casasola agrees that looking at babies is crucial for tracing how certain skills develop. One of her main interests is in understanding the link between spatial cognition and the acquisition of spatial language—language relating to space, location, and shapes.

Spatial awareness is a core cognitive ability. It is linked to achievement in math and sciences and has broader implications for everyday life. For example, spatial cognition relates to our ability to navigate, to project how objects will look from different angles, and even to reading orientation. Casasola wants to understand how these skills develop, but she also aims to figure out how they relate to acquisition of spatial language and what sorts of experiences promote spatial skills.

For this area of research, Casasola studies a wide age range, from babies at 14 months up to toddlers at 4.5 years old. The studies vary from age to age. For example, younger babies watch a computer animation of two halves of a shape—say, a heart—on either side of a curtain. The two halves move together and then disappear behind the curtain. The curtain then lifts and shows the whole heart. Or, it could show a completely different shape, like a square. Casasola relies on infant looking time to determine how they perceive these expected and unexpected shapes.

Older children are asked to put halves of foam shapes together. Casasola has also done naturalistic studies, during which researchers play with kids using spatial toys—puzzles, origami, and Legos. One group receives a lot of spatial language: “Fold the paper horizontally, you’ve made a triangle.” The other group receives general language, like “do this, now fold it like this, look what you’ve made.” What Casasola’s research found is that children with more exposure to spatial language are much better at naming shapes. The more spatial language a child acquires, the better they are at accomplishing nonverbal spatial tasks. Throughout the studies of spatial learning, Casasola wants to determine at what ages significant advances can be made.

“No one has looked at trajectory, which is important,” she says. “It can answer questions like, how stable are spatial skills? It can also highlight when might be ultimate time periods to promote it.” Knowing this will be useful for effective interventions that nurture better spatial cognition to help babies and children develop better spatial cognition abilities.

Using the Research

Goldstein is already on his way to applying his research findings to real-world intervention. Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research has recently funded the B.A.B.Y. Lab’s pilot intervention program to aid infant language development in low socioeconomic status families.

In previous research, the lab found that the timing and the form of reactions to infant babbling are crucial for language development. For example, if a baby is babbling at a toy, it’s important to respond immediately and to engage with that toy. The baby then sees there’s a reward to vocalizing and takes the next learning step.

The work done in the infant labs has a direct public impact. “Outreach is the real key,” Goldstein says. “We’re doing work that should improve the lives of parents and infants.”

Reprinted from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016

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Nathan Spreng, Assistant Professor in Human Development

In the Department of Human Development, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) informs Nathan Spreng’s studies of large-scale brain network dynamics and their role in cognition.

A Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, Spreng is curious about how volunteer test subjects in his Laboratory of Brain and Cognition conceive of the future and how they navigate the social world. Then there’s the hypothesized link between thinking about the past and imagining the future. “These different cognitive tasks activate similar brain regions,” Spreng
explains. “But it’s actually the other regions they talk to that help determine whether we’re thinking about the past or the future.”

It’s not only when the brain is doing something—performing cognitive tasks—that’s interesting to Spreng. Neuroscientists also study brain activity while people are simply resting in the scanner. But do our brains ever truly “rest”?

Not according to Spreng: “Signaling is always going on up there. Understanding how different brain regions hum along together (or are connected functionally) while people are simply resting can tell us a lot about how their brains work during cognitive tasks, and might eventually help us predict how resilient they will be to aging or brain disease.”

Spreng believes there’s even more in the resting-state fMRI data than previously imagined. In collaboration with Peter Doerschuk, professor of biomedical engineering, Spreng is developing a new method for analyzing resting-state activity. Doerschuk, also a Harvard-educated medical doctor, excels at developing algorithms for high-performance software systems.

In published reports of their progress so far, Spreng and Doerschuk say they’re finding ways to add important new details to the map of the resting brain— details like causality and direction of information flow between regions. Cause
and signaling direction are important considerations, Spreng notes, “when characterizing exactly how that network operates, and how information flows through the system, and how it might be involved in cognitive functions.”

The Cornell collaborators say their new statistical method shows promise in tracking both causation and direction of neural signals, showing us that the resting brain is anything but.

Reprinted from Evidence-based Living, a project of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

Diversity in sexual orientation—whether gay, straight, bisexual, or somewhere in between—has sparked long-standing controversies across the globe. In the United States, recent debates have centered around the civil rights for same-sex couples. In many other countries, homosexuality is considered illegal; in some, it’s punishable by death.

Often, these social and political debates refer to the “science of homosexuality” —or what we really know about why individuals are attracted to particular sexes. If you’ve followed these debates, you’ve likely heard people refer to the idea that homosexuality is genetic, or that it is a choice people make. But what does science really tell us about sexual orientation?

A new systematic review and commentary published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest takes a sweeping look at what the evidence says about homosexuality and sexual orientation in general. While the articles draw some conclusions about the causes and connections that lead to different sexual orientations, they also point out what we don’t know about homosexuality.

Here’s what we do know:

  • Across research papers, somewhere between 2 and 11 percent on people report experiencing same-sex attractions. The exact number varies depending on how the question is asked and how the research paper categorizes homosexuality.
  • Children who do not conform to gender identities—for example, boys who wear dresses or girls who act as “tomboys”—are more likely to identify as not heterosexual later in life. This applies to cultures across the globe, no matter what their gender roles.
  • Political attitudes about sexual orientation are connected to people’s understanding of the causes of same-sex behavior. People who believe that homosexuality is immoral tend to believe that sexuality is a choice or is influenced by social factors. Those who support free expression of sexuality tend to believe there are biological factors that influence sexual orientation.
Ritch Savin-Williams

Ritch Savin-Williams, Professor in Human Development

In a commentary published with the systematic review, Cornell Human Development Professor Ritch Savin-Williams offers evidence of a continuum of sexual orientation that includes a wide variety of classifications, including people who are “mostly straight” with a small degree of same-sex attraction or people who are “mostly gay or lesbian” with some attraction to opposite-sex partners. Taking into account these groups, the prevalence of people experiencing at least some same-sex feelings may be much broader than is represented in many studies.

“Traditionally, we’ve thought of sexual orientation in terms of three categories: you are or identify as straight, bisexual, or gay/lesbian,” he explained. “But recent research from a different perspective strongly suggests that this view mischaracterizes a significant number of people who have varying degrees of opposite-sex and same-sex romantic and sexual attractions and the ratio might well vary across contexts and time. That is, rather than categories there is a spectrum of sexualities and the in between points along a continuum constitute perhaps a quarter of all individuals, especially if you consider their infatuations, crushes and romantic feelings. Recognizing this reality has the potential to subvert any us-versus-them perspective, thus promoting the sexual and romantic commonality we have with each other.”

What the data do not tell us definitively is the why people have different sexual orientations. But there is evidence that there are multiple contributing factors, some of which we don’t yet understand.

The most scientifically plausible theories, according to the review, propose that sexual orientation is a product of biology and social factors, to varying degrees for different people.

For example, there is credible evidence across cultures that, for men, their birth order has some effect on their sexual orientation. Men with more older brothers are significantly more likely to identify as gay compared with first-born sons or men with older sisters. This is likely related to evidence that prenatal hormones affect the sexual orientation of boys. There is also clear evidence that specific genetic profiles contribute to sexual orientation, but likely interact with other factors.

What’s the take-home message here? There is a lot we don’t yet understand about how individuals develop their gender identity and sexual orientation. But it is absolutely clear that there are a wide variety of factors—both biological and social—that play into each person’s sexual identity.

by Pooja Shah '17

0704_14_002Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna, along with co-investigator Valerie Hans from the Cornell Law School, has received a $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand damage award decision-making.

Juries are often at sea about award amounts, with widely differing outcomes for cases that seem comparable. To make sense of this process—and, ultimately, improve the process of juror decision-making—the grant builds on evidence-based scientific theory developed at Cornell.

Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, said the research seeks to identify the causes of inconsistent jury awards and to test credible and cost-effective solutions that could reduce unwarranted inconsistency. Researchers will apply fuzzy-trace theory, believing that jurors often understand the gist of damages but have difficulty mapping verbatim numbers (dollar awards) onto that gist.

Currently, jurors are provided with limited guidance by the legal system and are presented with injuries that are often difficult to value. For instance, Reyna said, how do we value the loss of a spouse, the pain of a severe physical injury, or the inability to hug a child?  Researchers will evaluate the effectiveness of potential legal reforms—such as providing meaningful numbers as benchmarks and “scaling” instructions that place damages in perspective. Preliminary evidence suggests that such behavioral nudges can improve the process of translating a qualitative human injury into a quantitative monetary award.

Reyna, along with Hans and Cornell students, recently published a related paper, “The Gist of Juries: Testing a Model of Damage Award Decision Making,”  in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. (Read more about the paper in the Cornell Chronicle.)

The grant was made by the NSF Law and Social Sciences Program, which supports interdisciplinary research proposals that promote a greater understanding of the connections between law and human behavior while advancing scientific theory.

For juries awarding plaintiffs for pain and suffering, the task is more challenging – and the results more inconsistent – than awarding for economic damages, which is formulaic. Now, Cornell social scientists show how to reduce wide variability for monetary judgments in those cases: Serve up the gist.

As an example of gist, juries take into account the severity of injury and time-scope. In the case of a broken ankle, that injury is a temporary setback that can be healed. In an accident where someone’s face is disfigured, the scope of time lasts infinitely and affects life quality. In short, “meaningful anchors” – where monetary awards ideally complement the context of the injury – translate into more consistent dollar amounts.

Valerie Reyna

Valerie Reyna

“Inherently, assigning exact dollar amounts is difficult for juries,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. “Making awards is not chaos for juries. Instead of facing verbatim thoughts, juries rely on gist – as it is much more enduring. And when we realize that gist is more enduring, our models suggest that jury awards are fundamentally consistent.”

The foundation for understanding jury awards lies in the “fuzzy trace” theory, developed by Reyna and Charles Brainerd, professor of human development. The theory explains how in-parallel thought processes are represented in your mind. While verbatim representations – such as facts, figures, dates and other indisputable data – are literal, gist representations encompass a broad, general, imprecise meaning.

VHans Chronicle

Valerie Hans

“Experiments have confirmed the basic tenets of fuzzy trace theory,” said Valerie Hans, psychologist and Cornell professor of law, who studies the behavior of juries. “People engage in both verbatim- and gist-thinking, but when they make decisions, gist tends to be more important in determining the outcome; gist seems to drive decision-making.”

In addition to authors Reyna and Hans for the study, “The Gist of Juries: Testing a Model of Award and Decision Making,” the other co-authors include Jonathan Corbin Ph.D. ’15; Ryan Yeh ’13, now at Yale Law School; Kelvin Lin ’14, now at Columbia Law School; and Caisa Royer, a doctoral student in the field of human development and a student at Cornell Law School.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, the Cornell Law School and Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Update: On Sept. 1, 2015, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant for $389,996 to Cornell for support of the project “Quantitative Judgments in Law: Studies of Damage Award Decision Making,” under the direction of Valerie P. Hans and Valerie F. Reyna.

Relax. Breathe. It’s all small stuff. When faced with life’s daily challenges, adults who don’t maintain a positive outlook have shown elevated physiological markers for inflaming cardiovascular and autoimmune disease, according to new research by Cornell University and Penn State psychologists.

Anthony Ong

Anthony Ong

“Hassles and minor frustrations are common in day-to-day living. Our findings suggest that how people react to daily stressors may matter more … than the frequency of such stressors,” explain the researchers in “Affective Reactivity to Daily Stressors is Associated with Elevated Inflammation,” published June 8 in the journal Health Psychology and co-authored by Anthony Ong, Cornell associate professor of human development; along with Penn State researchers Nancy Sin, Jennifer Graham-Engeland and David Almeida.

While many scientists have studied how chronic stress affects human health, the researchers explained that little is known about how reactivity to daily stressors affects biomarkers of inflammation.

The study found that those people who had difficulty maintaining positive emotional engagement during times of stress appeared to be particularly at risk for elevated levels of inflammation.

The researchers surveyed nearly 870 midlife and older adults. People who experienced greater decreases in positive affect on days when stress occurred were found to have increased amounts of interleukin-6 (a protein that acts as an inflammatory or anti-inflammatory agent) and C-reactive protein (an anti-inflammatory agent). Women who experience increased negative affect when faced with minor stressors may be at particular risk of elevated inflammation.

“Previous research suggests that the chronic experience of joy and happiness may slow down the physiological effects of aging,” Ong said. “This study extends that research by showing that possessing stable levels of ‘positive affect’ may be conducive to good health, while disturbances in daily positive affect may be associated with heightened inflammatory immune responses.”

Ong explained, “These findings are novel because they point to the importance of daily positive emotion regulation that until now have largely been neglected in studies of stress and inflammation.”

 

Banner-Logo-150x150Scholars funded through the Institute for the Social Sciences’ small grant program this spring seek to answer such questions as, how do economic crises affect voters’ behavior, and how do public perceptions of social inequality influence efforts to mobilize cooperative solutions to climate change?

Twice yearly, the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) provides up to $12,000 to tenured and tenure-track faculty through its peer-reviewed small grant program. This spring, faculty from six different colleges won awards.

“One of the strengths of the program is that it forges interdisciplinary connections across campus, both in the traditional strongholds of the social sciences and units where scholars are working at the boundaries of social sciences, humanities and life sciences,” said Kim Weeden, professor of sociology and the Robert S. Harrison Director of ISS.

One of these boundary-spanning projects is a collaborative effort between Malte Jung and Steven Jackson, both in Computing and Information Sciences, and a surgical team at Weill Medical College in New York City. They will compare robotic and laparoscopic surgical teams.

Christopher Huckfeldt, assistant professor in economics, is calibrating a macroeconomic model of unemployment with data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. He is applying quantitative macroeconomic theory to assess the importance of occupational downgrading in generating permanent income losses for workers who lose their job during a recession.

“The ISS grant has put me on a faster track to accomplish the research goals associated with my project. As a junior faculty member, this type of grant is invaluable for establishing a long-term research agenda,” Huckfeldt said.

Claire Lim, assistant professor in economics, is looking at how deregulation, mergers and acquisitions, and changes in regulators’ ideology, have affected executive compensation in the domestic energy industry. She’s also examining how political environments in the U.S. influence the regulation and conduct of energy firms.

Using the Charles Manson murders and subsequent trials in the early 1970s as a stage, Claudia Verhoeven, associate professor in history, hopes to invigorate the historiography through analysis of gender, class, race, geo-politics, pop and mass culture, social movements, religion, the justice system, mass media and militant environmentalism. She intends to properly situate the case in the context of the late 1960s, and provide it with a reception history – a history of the way events were portrayed and perceived at the time.

Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication, will use his ISS grant to study how socioeconomic status influences beliefs and intentions to address and mitigate climate change.

Alexander Kuo, assistant professor of government, will use the grant to conduct surveys before and after the 2015 national elections in Spain to analyze how an economic crisis affects voter behavior and supports new political movements.

The ISS’ small grants program also is supporting two upcoming conferences.

Trevor Pinch and collaborators Michael Lynch and Bruce Lewenstein, all from science and technology studies, are using ISS funds to support a 2016 conference to take stock of the field of science and technology studies, what it has accomplished and where it is headed.

Another conference, led by Gustavo Flores-Macias, assistant professor in government, is bringing together leading scholars on the political economy of Latin America in a conference to address taxation and its importance to inequality and economic development.

Other recipients of spring 2015 small grants include Adam Anderson, associate professor in human development; Garrick Blalock, associate professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; John Forester, professor in city and regional planning; Karel Mertens, associate professor of economics; David Mimno, assistant professor in information science; and Luo Zuo, assistant professor of accounting.

The deadline for the fall 2015 small grants competition is Sept. 8, and applications will be requested shortly after the fall semester begins.

Lori Sonken is the staff writer for the Institute for the Social Sciences.